- The Washington Times - Friday, June 9, 2000

A Senate Committee subpoenaed the Justice Department Thursday for documents on the seizure of Elian Gonzalez in an attempt to determine whether the Clinton administration worked with the Cuban government to return the boy to his father.

The move by the Senate Judiciary Committee followed the release of documents by the public-interest group Judicial Watch showing numerous contacts between the administration and the government of Fidel Castro concerning the fate of the 6-year-old child.

"Given the importance of this issue and the history of the administration concerning the production of e-mails, campaign finance and Waco documents, I believe it is prudent to vote for this subpoena," said committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican.

Mr. Hatch was voicing frustration over the White House's pattern of losing, deleting or withholding material sought in congressional investigations of multiple administration scandals.

He said the Justice Department's failure to provide material requested earlier on the Elian case triggered Thursday's subpoena.

A Justice spokeswoman said the department had cooperated with the committee and would continue to do so.

Armed federal agents stormed the home of Elian's Miami relatives April 22 and whisked the boy to Washington, where he was reunited with his father, who had recently arrived from Cuba.

Elian, his father, stepmother, half-brother and visitors from Cuba are now living at an estate in the upscale Washington neighborhood of Cleveland Park, awaiting court approval for the boy to return to Cuba.

Immediately after the raid, Mr. Hatch scheduled a hearing, but later called it off, saying he wanted to look at Justice Department documents first.

Mr. Hatch said Thursday it is possible he would not call a hearing at all, but that the burden is on the Justice Department to show, through the documents, that it is unnecessary.

He also said the committee is considering a similar subpoena for State Department documents.

"I believe this modification is warranted so as to inform the Congress and the public of any involvement by the State Department and the Cuban government in the raid," Mr. Hatch said. "If there was no such involvement, let's establish that. We will all be better served by getting the facts out."

Maria Cardona, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department's Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) denied that there had been any coordination with the Cuban government over Elian's fate.

"As we do with any other case that involves more than one agency, these e-mails were talking about all communication going through official channels, which in this case was the State Department," Miss Cardona said.

"It was in no way, shape or form about coordinating with the Cuban government. We are not in the habit of coordinating anything with governments with which we do not have diplomatic relations," she said.

A State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, was livid over a report in Wednesday's editions of The Washington Times, which quoted a Jan. 19 e-mail message from an INS official.

The message, titled: "Re: Daily conference calls re: Elian," says "[Department of State] wants to have a daily conference call to coordinate press guidance and communications with the Cubans."

The message shows regular contact between Washington and Havana prior to a January visit by Elian's two grandmothers to the United States.

But the State Department official denied any connection between U.S.-Cuban contacts and decisions in Washington on what to tell the news media.

"That interpretation of the e-mail is wrong. We did everything by the book. We were very careful to do everything properly. We did not coordinate press guidance or anything with the Cuban government."

Some Democrats on the Judiciary Committee denounced the subpoena as a new fishing expedition, but said they would not try to interfere or prevent Mr. Hatch from calling a hearing on the raid.

"I suppose there is nothing new about this committee making the Justice Department the villain, but I think it is particularly inappropriate in this matter," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the panel.

"In my view, the department has, to a striking degree, handled this matter in a way that was beyond politics," he said.

But to opponents of Cuba's communist government, the White House effort to send Elian back after his dramatic rescue at sea from an ill-fated voyage that killed his mother and 10 other refugees marked the ultimate sellout to Fidel Castro.

The passions ignited by the Elian saga flared again Thursday after the INS returned Cuban baseball star Andy Morales, who along with 30 other Cubans was picked up by the Coast Guard off Key West, Fla., on May 31.

U.S. officials returned the 25-year-old third baseman known in the United States for once hitting a home run in an exhibition game with the Baltimore Orioles on Wednesday after determining that he did not qualify for political asylum.

Miss Cardona, the INS spokeswoman, said the refugees on Mr. Morales' boat were all given a chance to claim credible fear of persecution the litmus test for political asylum but did not meet that threshold.

"This group was handled no differently than anyone else. There is no new policy," she said.

Many Cubans returned by the United States have been branded as traitors, made outcasts and lost their jobs, but such hardships do not meet INS requirements for asylum.

"Losing a job cannot be compared to someone who is afraid of being killed or tortured," Miss Cardona said.

Meanwhile, Judicial Watch released another batch of documents Thursday, one of which detailed an attempt by the INS to arrange a secret meeting between U.S. officials and Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, in Cuba.

A Dec. 29 memo on a meeting of INS officials says: "The meeting concluded with discussion of re-scripting questions; calling on the [State Department] to discuss whether further signals could be sent to the Cuban government that they should cooperate with the interview."

At the time, U.S. officials had already interviewed Juan Miguel Gonzalez once at his home in Cardenas, Cuba, and determined that he was a fit parent for Elian.

The INS then sought a second interview after Elian's Miami relatives had charged Cuban authorities with pressuring Juan Miguel Gonzalez to seek custody of his son.

The memo discusses an optimal "litigation" strategy and proposes that the Cuban government "be advised that the U.S. government would not disclose to anyone that an additional interview would take place."

It was not clear from the documents whether the proposed meeting with Elian's father ever took place.

But Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, said, "These documents clearly prove that the INS was closely collaborating with Cuba in developing a litigation strategy to get custody of Elian from the Miami family.

"They went so far as seeking help from the Cuban government to arrange a secret meeting with Juan Miguel."

• Staff writer Sean Scully contributed this report.

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